School & District Management Opinion

Teachers’ Unions Face ‘Best and Worst’ of Times

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — December 11, 2014 4 min read
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It’s Dickensian—the best of times and the worst —for teacher unions in California.

In the wake of last month’s election that returned Gov. Jerry Brown and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to office, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have the best political opportunity in 40 years to reshape teaching and schooling.

That window of opportunity will close in about 24 months as the terms of these top officials move toward lame duck status.

Simultaneously, the two unions have lost the battle of the op-ed pages and the race for idea leadership in how to create a world-class 21st Century education system in the state. Two years ago the CTA declared a crisis that would require articulation of a new vision of unionism and a rallying of strength, but their lack of articulated ideas allowed challenger Marshall Tuck to gain the editorial support of virtually every newspaper in the state. And the idea vacuum allowed his corporatist ideas about education reform to play out to a receptive audience. As a political novice, with little support from the state’s education leaders, he got 48 percent of the vote.

The CTA and the CFT are—as Charles Dicken’s characters were during the French Revolution—simultaneously in a time that offers enormous hope and terror.

The danger is obvious. Teacher unionism is under attack virtually everywhere, and their political clout seems largely insufficient. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers spent about $60-million in the November midterm elections, and they didn’t get much. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker figuratively walked to victory, 52-47 percent, this despite an intense NEA/AFT boots on the ground effort, including mailers and a 15,000-person phone bank. His explicitly anti-public sector-union stance will find it’s way into statehouses nationwide and into the Republican presidential campaign. One of the first expected actions would be expansion of a voucher program, which now enrolls 30,000 students, mostly in Milwaukee.

Make no mistake, Republicans have always hated unions, and for decades they have seen opposition to public sector employee unions as a way to destroy the last large organized group in the country not controlled by corporations and rich folk. But the Walker victory and the reelection of Gov. Rick Scott in Florida—both unpopular governors—pave the way for an aggressive anti-union stance in future campaigns. Pension, pay, tenure; it’s all on the line.

More dangerous is that teacher unions have lost support of the Obama wing of the Democratic Party. On the national stage, Democrats for Education Reform (DEFR) has virtually usurped the word “reformer” while the unions are engaged in internal struggles between their establishment wing and aptly named progressive faction, the Badass Teachers Association.

The lack of clear idea leadership and a political agenda other than defense of schooling as it was a generation ago condemns teacher unions to a series of defensive battles: trench warfare rather than transformation.

So what is the way forward? There is a root problem with labor law: unions do almost exactly the things that the law demands of them but not what the times require. We’ll write about labor law later, but there are three immediate imperatives if California’s teacher unions are to take advantage of their current “best-of-times” opportunity.

First, organize around a big idea. There is a growing movement, some of it fueled by California teachers and foundations, for what is called deeper learning. At the same time there is an insistent call for teacher accountability. A skillful marriage of these two instincts could fundamentally change the work of teachers and the education of students.

Interestingly, there appears to be movement on this front. Last week, it was reported that the CTA and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) are joining forces to develop high quality teacher-run professional development in preparation for the Common Core. Kudos for that; getting articulate about what creates good teaching is an important union attribute.

Second, fix what should have been fixed years ago. Vergara became a lawsuit and civil rights issue because unions were unwilling to make necessary changes in due process and seniority in order to solve real problems. Value-added testing and accountability became a wedge issue because unions were unwilling to link teachers and student performance in any way. The CTA and CFT will be incapable of organizing around big ideas unless they can clear away what ought to be small issues first.

Third, begin to face the elemental changes in teaching work. Every work rule and job protection unions have gained for teachers prevails only so long as the basic teaching and learning system does not change. And, as any one with the slightest peripheral vision knows, learning is changing. The Internet revolution in how information is processed is rolling through higher education and is pressing against the classroom door.

Historically, unions resist changes in how work is carried out—particularly when those changes are driven by technology—until it is too late. As the history of craft unions illustrates, when work changes the unions who represent workers doing work the old way either die or shrink into a narrow protective shell surrounding older workers.

California’s unionized teachers deserve a better future than that.

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